TEAM OF THE WEEK: MOST EXTRAORDINARY ROUND
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal, in his weekly wrap, looks at what he regards as the most extraordinary round of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
At the halfway mark of the tournament, the NPC has three clear leaders.
Canterbury and Taranaki in the Premiership and runaway Championship favourites, Otago.
Round Five was the most extraordinary week so far this season with an incredible upset, a Ranfurly Shield match marred by poor refereeing decisions and almost every position was highly contestable in the Team of the Week.
In the first match of the round, Taranaki started strongly with their giant forwards bullying Counties Manukau.
Two tries to one meant the Bulls led 9-20 at the break. The Counties' Steelers came out firing in the second half, winning a turnover and a scrum penalty. This led to a great power try from none other than Counties' leading try scorer Jordan Taufua.
The Steelers looked to be on a roll when their 90-metre counter-attack ended with sevens' star Sherwin Stowers running in their third and bringing the scores to within one point.
After trading superb team tries and penalties, replacement flyhalf Joe Reynolds of the Steelers couldn't steal the win, missing an 81st-minute penalty attempt and losing by one point for the second week in a row, 29-30 to the Taranaki Bulls.
The bottom of the Premiership travelled to the bottom of New Zealand to play the bottom of the Championship. The first half was dominated by Southland's excellent goal-line defence and both teams' lack of discipline, leading to each having a man in the bin.
The visitors started the second half quickly and in under two minutes they had mauled their way over, followed closely by a superb team try from a line-out steal. Southland surged back to even up the scores.
However, in the final quarter, Hawkes' Bay showed the gulf between the Premiership and the Championship, shooting out to a 43-29 win.
Northland continued their losing streak after they gifted Tasman a 20-point head start that they could not recover from. Although Dan Hawkins kicked them 13 points, they were never really in the game, eventually losing 33-23.
Wellington are ominously picking up momentum and with 3 of their last 4 games against Championship opponents, they are looking almost certain for the play-offs come October.
This week they thrashed Bay of Plenty in the first quarter, leading 17-3 after three quick tries, including a stunning Wes Goosen try, which came from a flying offload by Jackson Garden-Bachop in a tackle. Wellington dominated possession for the entire match, shutting the Steamers out and winning 24-10.
North Harbour won the breakdown, they beat Otago at both line-out and scrum time, they conceded fewer penalties, had more possession and used it to break more tackles, make more clean breaks and run more metres. As a famous man once said, they won everywhere except the scoreboard.
So, how did they lose? Otago's flyhalf, Fletcher Smith, had a fantastic kicking game, he scored more points than all of North Harbour and he kicked for the corners brilliantly to set his team up to score forward-dominated tries.
Otago, extending their streak to 6, guaranteed themselves a play-off spot in the Championship, with a 24-13 win.
Then came the upset of the year. To put into perspective how big an upset Manawatu beating Canterbury is, one is a province filled 50-50 with amateurs and Super Rugby bench players, and Canterbury is mostly Super Rugby starters with stars like Johnny McNicholl and Alby Mathewson riding the pine.
Prior to this match, Manawatu had won against the two Championship wooden-spoon contestants and lost to two mid-table teams. Whereas, Canterbury had scored an average of 51 points, conceding just 15 per match and were sitting unbeaten on top of the Premiership.
Defence was the word of the day, as the rain poured down in Palmerston North. Last year's relegated team was ahead for most of the game, assisted by a lethargic Canterbury who were slow at the breakdown, ending with over double the amount of penalties and losing their captain, Luke Whitelock, who paid a 10-minute toll for incorrect entry.
The match came down to a single action and decision, whether or not Johnny McNicholl had grounded the ball with his forearm as he dived back on defence. The TMO said no, which meant workhorse lock Jackson Hemopo was rewarded with a try, leaving the match 19-13 to Manawatu.
Counties Manukau's second match of the week was a tense affair filled with angry moments against their northern rivals, Auckland. The Steelers used the ball they had to great advantage, but the superior boot of Simon Hickey saw Auckland stay closer than they deserved to be.
A Latiume Fosita try, converted in the 75th minute, saw big brother take the lead 26-23 at home in Auckland. But a piece of individual brilliance by none other than All Black Augustine Pulu saw Counties snatch the victory 26-30.
An injury-hit Waikato took on their third Ranfurly Shield defence this season against their first Premiership challenger and 2014 champions, the Taranaki Bulls.
Both sides played entertaining football, which was slowed down by an inconsistent referee. Breakdowns became lotteries, which made the first half very stop-start.
Despite this, both sides scored three outstanding tries and each kicked a single penalty, Sam Christie's 74th-minute attempt drawing up the match, 20-20 and keeping the Shield in Waikato.
Score and scorers:
Counties Manukau 29-30 Taranaki
Tries:Sione Molia, Jordan Taufua, Sherwin Stowers, Richard Judd
Cons: Piers Francis, Joe Reynolds 2
Pen: Joe Reynolds
Tries:Sean Wainui, Stephen Perofeta, Mitchell Crosswell
Cons: Marty McKenzie 3
Pens: Marty McKenzie 3
Southland 29-43 Hawkes' Bay
Tries:Peni Ravai, Tauasosi Tuimavave
Cons: Wharenui Hawera, Tauasosi Tuimavave
Pens: Wharenui Hawera 5
Tries:Brad Weber, Ash Dixon, Matt Garland, Mason Emerson, Tony Lamborn, Ihaia West
Cons: Ihaia West 4, Tiaan Falcon
Pen: Ihaia West
Tasman 33-23 Northland
Tries:Tevita Koloamatangi, Quinten Strange, Shannon Frizzel
Cons: Marty Banks 3
Pens: Marty Banks 4
Tries:Matt Matich, Kara Pryor
Cons: Dan Hawkins 2
Pens: Dan Hawkins 3
Wellington 24-10 Bay of Plenty
Tries:Reg Goodes 2, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Wes Goosen
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 2
Bay of Plenty:
Con: Dan Hollinshead
Pen: Luke Campbell
Otago 24-13 North Harbour
Tries:Craig Millar, Sam Anderson-Heather
Con: Fletcher Smith
Pens: Fletcher Smith 4
Con: Bryn Gatland
Pens: Bryn Gatland 2
Manawatu 19-13 Canterbury
Con: Otere Black
Pens: Otere Black 4
Cons: Richie Mo'unga
Pens: Richie Mo'unga 2
Auckland 26-30 Counties Manukau
Tries:Greg Pleasants-Tate, Latiume Fosita
Cons: Simon Hickey 2
Pens: Simon Hickey 4
Tries: Viliame Rarasea, Gafatasi Su'a, Sione Fifita, Augustine Pulu
Cons: Piers Francis 2
Pens: Piers Francis 2
Waikato 20-20 Taranaki
Tries:Sevu Reece 2, Tyler Campbell
Con: Sam Christie
Pen: Sam Christie
Tries:Jonathan Fa'auli, Toa Halafihi 2
Con: Marty McKenzie
Pen: Marty McKenzie
Team of the Week - Round Five:
15 - Junior Ngaluafe (Southland):
Made the most carries in his team and was a big reason that the Stags stayed in the match for as long as they did.
Bubbling under: Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki)
14 - Tima Fainga'anuku (Tasman):
He got highly involved and beat opponents when he had the ball, knocking them back when he didn't.
Bubbling under: Sione Fifita (Counties Manukau)
13 - Matt Vaega (North Harbour):
Used the good ball he received to great advantage, getting heaps of go-forward ball and picking up Harbour's sole try.
Bubbling under: Rieko Ioane (Auckland)
12 - Tiaan Falcon (Hawkes' Bay):
Added an impressive kicking game to his powerful running, directing the team alongside Ihaia West and even picked up the Magpies' final conversion.
Bubbling under: Cardiff Vaega (Counties Manukau)
11 - Sevu Reece (Waikato):
It was his attacking impetus and two tries that kept the Shield in Mooloo country.
Bubbling under: Wes Goosen (Wellington)
10 - Marty Banks (Tasman):
For his all-round kicking, distribution and running game, Banks takes the top spot for the week. There were four outstanding candidates for this position, with Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington) and Marty McKenzie (Taranaki) just missing out.
Bubbling under: Fletcher Smith (Otago)
9 - Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau):
Pulu is having a superb season and, with two match-winning performances in one week, he could well have an All Blacks re-call in two short months. He wins the Player of the Round for the second time in only 5 weeks. This is another position with huge depth. Jamie Booth (Manawatu), Brad Weber (Hawkes' Bay) and Billy Guyton (Tasman) were all brilliant this round.
Bubbling under: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato)
8 - Paul Grant (Otago):
Grant has played a complete game from Otago's boot all season, no more so than against North Harbour. He took line-outs, pilfered ball, crossed the gain-line and crushed the offence.
Bubbling under: Akira Ioane (Auckland)
7 - Kara Pryor (Northland):
Leading an excellent loose trio, Pryor made 16 tackles, missing none, stole 2 breakdowns, carried for an average of 10 metres and scored a try.
Bubbling under: Tony Lamborn (Hawkes' Bay)
6 - Harrison Brewer (Manawatu):
Made the season-high most carries in a single game and to do it against Canterbury is something special.
Bubbling under: Henry Stowers (Bay of Plenty)
5 - Jackson Hemopo (Manawatu):
Has a massive workrate and was rewarded with a try after some dynamic following up.
Bubbling under: Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau)
4 - Geoffrey Cridge (Hawkes' Bay):
Exemplified the hard-working power lock, driving back attackers and making 17 carries, with a few neat offloads and link play thrown in for good measure.
Bubbling under: Tom Parsons (Manawatu)
3 - Sosefo Kautai (Waikato):
The rookie was added to the starting sheet at the last-minute and he stood up fantastically against one of the toughest scrums in the competition, making made a big impact on defence, too.
Bubbling under: Blair Prinsep (Tasman)
2 - Hame Faiva (Waikato):
Took on the impressive Rhys Marshall head-to-head and won. Faiva's abrasive style was perfect for the tough forward-dominated contest, including some excellent set-piece work and a solid linking game.
Bubbling under: Ash Dixon (Hawkes' Bay)
1 - Mitchell Graham (Taranaki):
These days a loosehead prop going 80 minutes is considered unusual, Graham did that twice in one week, and grafted for the whole time. A special mention to Latu Talakai (Waikato), Tim Perry (Tasman) and Nic Mayhew (North Harbour) who all stood out in their respective matches.
Bubbling under: Reg Goodes (Wellington)
Team of the week - Round Four: 15 Jordan Trainor (Waikato), 14 Mitchell Scott (Otago), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 George Bridge (Canterbury), 10 Damian McKenzie (Waikato), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Luke Whitelock (Canterbury), 7 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 6 Jesse Parete (Bay of Plenty), 5 Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), 4 Scott Barrett (Canterbury), 3 Ben May (Hawkes' Bay), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Loni Uhila (Waikato)
Team of the week - Round Three: 15 Michael Collins (Otago), 14 Beaudein Waaka (Taranaki), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 Ryan Crotty (Canterbury), 11 Wes Goosen (Wellington), 10 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Naulia Dawai (Otago), 7 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 6 Pete Samu (Tasman), 5 Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), 4 Josh Goodhue (Northland), 3 Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), 2 Greg Pleasants-Tate (Auckland), 1 Loni Uhila (Waikato)
Team of the week - Round Two: 15 Jason Emery (Manawatu), 14 Newton Tudreu (Manawatu), 13 Matt Proctor (Wellington), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 Tevita Li (North Harbour),10 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 9 Te Aihe Toma (Bay of Plenty), 8 Steven Luatua (Auckland), 7 James Lentjes (Otago), 6 Bill Fukofuka (Southland), 5 Dominic Bird (Canterbury), 4 Thomas Franklin (Otago), 3 Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Peni Ravai (Southland)
Team of the week - Round One: 15 Solomona Alaimalo (Northland), 14 Johnny McNicholl (Canterbury), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Tei Walden (Otago), 11 Wes Goosen (Wellington), 10 Damian McKenzie (Waikato), 9 Finlay Christie (Tasman), 8 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), Tony Lamborn (Hawkes' Bay), 6 Pete Samu (Tasman), 5 Brian Alainu'uese (Waikato), 4 Scott Barrett (Canterbury), 3 Michael Kainga (Taranaki), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Nic Mayhew (North Harbour).
By Richard Neal